Aladdin (2019) Review
Dir. Guy Ritchie; Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith
[2 out of 4 stars]
It has been twenty-seven years since the animated Aladdin (1992) first hit the screens and captivated a generation of Disney-music-singing road-trippers. The new live-action remake, directed by Guy Ritchie (known for Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels  and Sherlock Holmes ), sought to retell and update the story for a new generation. Adding disappointing new music and a few minor plot twists, Aladdin (2019) is a moderately enjoyable film that remains far from surpassing the original in any way. And despite all of the media buzz mocking Will Smith as a giant blue Genie, he was hardly the least successful aspect of the film (and actually one of the few funny bits).
If you’ve seen the animated version, you already know the story of Aladdin. A poor street urchin (played by Mena Massoud), steals from the wealthier inhabitants of the fictitious city of Agrabah (set somewhere in the Arabic-speaking world). In the process, he wins the affection of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), daughter of the all-powerful Sultan of Agrabah (Navid Negahban), who is set to be wed to a foreign prince. Meanwhile, the Sultan’s nefarious vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who is plotting to overthrow the Sultan, discovers that Aladdin has been sneaking into the palace to visit his beloved, and takes him to the Cave of Wonders, where he forces the young man to find a magical and dangerous treasure. There, Aladdin finds a magic lamp and meets a comical Genie (Will Smith), who gives him three wishes. The honest Aladdin uses these wishes to win Jasmine, defeat Jafar, and bring freedom to the Genie.
While the general structure of the film remains the same in the new version, Ritchie added a few new details. Bookending the film is a narrative device: a father sailing across the seas tells his young children the story of Aladdin (later, we find out who the man and his wife are). Another addition is the figure of Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), Jasmine’s charmingly awkward handmaiden, who acts as a romantic counterpart to the Genie. Their story, although cheesy, was actually relatively interesting, and provided some of the film’s only genuine moments of humor. This was one of the chief differences between the animated and live-action films: Ritchie’s version, for some bizarre reason, sacrificed much of the comedy for a more gritty, realistic feel. Visually, this is apparent in the more detailed architecture of the city and palace, and in the turn to live-action actors; but it’s even more obvious in the at times painful lack of comedy, and the music.
Aladdin follows the lead of other recent musical adaptations in heightening the realistic feel of the film, at the sacrifice of its quality. Much like Into the Woods (2014), which substituted the trained voices of the original Broadway cast for a few passable singers like James Corden and Anna Kendrick (and, for some unfortunate reason, Johnny Depp), the new version of Aladdin had the actors sing their own parts. Some, like Scott, did this quite well; others, like Massoud and Smith, clearly lacked the musical training necessary to pull off big numbers. This, I suppose, was intended to mark the difference between the street urchin and the princess. But that’s not what we’re looking for in a musical film. The music should be flawless, dynamic, and trained. A bigger problem was the sound balance. The background score was far louder than the singers, which meant that in many sections, it was impossible to distinguish what they were singing. And this is no small issue. Much of the story is told through these songs, so for narrative continuity, it’s essential that the viewers understand what’s being said. Smith’s raspy, out-of-breath, flat voice couldn’t pull of “Arabian Nights” or “Friend Like Me,” and this not only ruined two of the film’s best songs, but also meant that audiences have to rely on the visuals to understand the story. The one song that might have been improved from the original was one of my personal favorites, “Prince Ali.” Sung by the Genie while Aladdin (dressed as a prince from the doubly-fictitious land of “Ababwa”) processes into the city, this song paired nicely with the film’s gilded, over-the-top visuals. The combination of a much fuller-sounding orchestral score with the enormous proportions of Prince Ali’s fortune––“He’s got seventy-five golden camels…”––resulted in a rather epic number, complete with dancing, fireworks, and a whole lot of gags on Smith’s part.
While most of the music was adapted from the original, a single new song (which appears twice in the film, the second time as a reprise) adds to Jasmine’s patriarchy-defying diatribes. “Speechless,” a song about the role of women, is actually quite catchy and will doubtless be sung to exhaustion at high school talent shows, but it doesn’t fit into the film. While the rest of the songs, which were borrowed from the 1992 film, are woven seamlessly into the narrative––that is, Aladdin sings “One Jump Ahead” while we watch him run from the palace guards, and “A Whole New World” sets the backdrop to Aladdin and Jasmine’s kindling love––“Speechless” acts as a narrative break, disturbing the continuity of the film as we know it. As Jasmine sings, time seems to freeze, and she is able to wander around the set while the other characters remain still. The effect is something like a second-rate music video, and while it promotes an important message (i.e., that women deserve to make their voices heard) it’s somewhat hypocritical: some have pointed out that the song was written by two men; more importantly, nobody within the diegesis of the film actually hears her.
In a predictable move, the new Aladdin plays up Jasmine’s role more than the original. To good effect, Scott plays Jasmine as a more confident woman, one who not only speaks up about inequality, but actually impacts the others. She has a bigger voice in this version, which she uses in one of the film’s most significant departures from the original, to ask the head of the guards, Hakim (a new addition played stoically by Numan Acar) to pledge allegiance to what he knows is right, rather than embracing Jafar as the new Sultan. Her speech, despite being undermined by her song, is moving and works, to some extent. Unfortunately, the film’s writers went overboard in turning her into a two-bit feminist icon, and she comes off in these scenes more like a t-shirt slogan than a three-dimensional character. This is largely due to her pairing opposite Jafar, who systematically tells her that she should be seen rather than heard. Her response, in the song “Speechless,” is hardly convincing, seeing as Jafar remains in power until the male characters save the day: Aladdin and the Genie defeat Jafar, and even Abu and the magic carpet have a more active role than Jasmine. If there was ever a time to have the princess swoop in and rescue the others, it was here. But that’s Disney for you. Rather than follow through and update the original film’s sexism, they gave her a brief moment in a cheesy music video and a less-revealing outfit.
The first Aladdin, along with many Disney films, came under fire for its casual racism. The remake was a chance to improve those mistakes. But even with the casting changes, Aladdin retained much of its original racism. There’s the film’s essentialism, which comes out in some of the dance numbers, where tropes of Eastern culture are woven together. The film’s depiction of Agrabah and its inhabitants, for instance, has been criticized for merging South Asia and the Middle East into a single landscape. The map Jasmine looks at seems to put Agrabah on the western side of the Arabian peninsula, but the architecture of the palace is more Indian. Another problem is that despite the general opinion that the story comes from One Thousand and One Nights, the story’s Arabic origins are dubious at best. Recent articles have argued that the Aladdin story is actually an 18th century addition by a French editor, and one that propagates many Orientalist myths. Obviously, it would be feckless to criticize Ritchie for the Aladdin story’s centennial success, but it is telling that Disney continues to push the story as its sole depiction of half a continent.
In terms of casting, Aladdin is something of a mixed bag. Recently, Disney has (finally) taken a more forward approach to finding actors who look like the characters they are playing––see my review of Coco (2017), for instance––and Aladdin is no exception. While the original cast of Aladdin was entirely white, Ritchie’s version introduced a more diverse cast. But it honestly seems like they didn’t try that hard, since one of the film’s biggest problems was Aladdin himself. Massoud is no singer, and he can hardly act. I will have to admit that I was cringing slightly during the entirety of his opening song, “One Jump Ahead.” Despite his talent in the dancing scenes, Massoud’s Aladdin no longer glides over rooftops, but stumbles awkwardly, and in the brief moments when you can actually hear him over the score and sound effects, he comes across breathy and untrained. Kenzari was likewise entirely unconvincing as Jafar. He looked far too young to play the Sultan’s most trusted advisor, and just couldn’t control the stage, even as Sultan, sorcerer, or Genie. On the other hand, it was fun to see Pedrad in her first big role. She was excellent in New Girl (2011-2018), where she played a quirky police officer, and she brought that same awkward humor and charm to her role as Dalia. Paired with her was Smith as the Genie, and their romance was, surprisingly, one of the better parts of the film.
Despite my low expectations, Smith did a halfway decent job as the Genie. Sure, he was goofy and looked ridiculous, but that’s kind of the point. And sure, he can’t sing, but he made up for it with his humor. Early reports said that Smith wouldn’t try to imitate Robin Williams. That might have been a good idea, since everyone knows that Williams did best when he was allowed to improvise. But my biggest complaint is that Smith was bound to Williams’s script, virtually repeating the jokes he came up with word-for-word. Thus, the whole scene when the Genie helps Aladdin turn into a prince felt stagnant, and frankly, boring. Smith’s best joke is not being able to remember Aladdin’s name. There wasn’t enough comedy in it; none of the clever anachronism, like giving Prince Ali a sports car. Smith’s version of “Friend Like Me,” which suffered from both a lack of humor and his inability to carry a tune, was probably the low point of the whole film. (As a side note, I saw a production of Aladdin the Musical in Disneyland several years ago that was pure genius, proving that it wasn’t just the cartoonish quality of the original that made it so hilarious.) Credit should be given to Smith, however, since he faced the inevitable double-edged sword of having to follow Williams’s example without emulating him. Unfortunately, this ended with a rather un-spectacular sequence. Go back and watch Williams’s brilliant version (or this side-by-side comparison) with his voice imitations, the neon lights, and the show tune feel, and you’ll see what I mean.
Aladdin’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t offer anything new. Unlike other recent Disney live action remakes, which made changes to the originals, Aladdin barely touched the original screenplay. The significant changes in tone in Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Dumbo (2019)––which both substituted the naive charm of the originals (made in 1951 and 1941, respectively), for director Tim Burton’s much darker designs––changed the films and gave us something interesting to deal with. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016) took the remake as a technical challenge to update the cinematography of the 1967 original, and was touted by critics for its CGI and attention to detail. Similarly, the 2017 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast vastly updated the auditory and visual realms to create stunning musical/dance numbers. There are so many things the film could have done, like tackling the racism and sexism with more gusto, or enhancing the sound quality and vocal performances. The makers of Aladdin did none of those things, and it suffers for it.